BERLIN -- Voters in Berlin go to the polls today to decide on a proposal that would force the city government to drastically ramp up the German capital's climate goals. Critics warn it could come with a steep price tag.
The referendum, which has attracted considerable financial support from U.S.-based philanthropists, calls for Berlin to become climate neutral by 2030. The target means that in less than eight years, the city would no longer be allowed to contribute further to global warming.
An existing law sets the deadline for achieving that goal at 2045, which is also Germany's national target.
The center-right Christian Democratic Union opposes the earlier target but would be bound to implement it if the referendum passes.
Jessamine Davis, a spokesperson for the grassroots group that initiated the vote, said Berlin's current target isn't in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord, which aims to cap global warming at 2.7 Fahrenheit compared with the pre-industrial average.
"This is a very ambitious target, we're clear about that. And it won't be easy," she said of the plan to cut almost all emissions by 2030. "But the climate crisis is an even bigger challenge."
Davis pointed to the flood disaster in western Germany two years ago that killed more than 180 people and caused tens of billions of dollars in economic damage.
Scientists say such disasters could become more likely as the planet warms. By contrast, redesigning Berlin's citywide heating network as one of the measures to become carbon neutral is estimated to cost $4.3 billion, she said.
While surveys showed Berliners narrowly in favor of the proposal, enthusiasm was muted Saturday. A rally and concert at the Brandenburg Gate drew far fewer than the 35,000 people organizers hoped for.
The referendum requires the support of at least 25% of the city's 2.4 million eligible voters to pass.
To draw attention to the referendum, Davis' group has conducted a large-scale advertising campaign, helped by donations of almost $1.3 million. While about $162,000 came from crowdfunding, most of the biggest chunk -- over $430,000 -- came from German-American investors Albert Wenger and Susan Danziger.
In emails to The Associated Press, Wenger said the U.S.-based couple had "a long history of supporting climate movements and making investments in innovative solutions to the climate crisis."
"The Berlin ballot initiative demonstrates that citizens in a democratic process are demanding faster and stronger climate action," he said. "This is a replicable model for the rest of the world and could result in achieving climate neutrality by 2030 before major tipping points are crossed."
Stefan Evers, a senior lawmaker for the Christian Democrats, said his party acknowledges the "historic challenge" of climate change and the impacts it is already having on Berlin and its 3.7 million inhabitants.
The party has proposed increasing the budget for climate-related measures by 5 to 10 billion euros, but Evers said the investments required if the referendum passes would break the bank.
Strong criticism of the plan has also come from newspapers owned by German media giant Axel Springer. Its biggest shareholder is American investment firm KKR, which has sizeable financial interests in the fossil fuel industry.
In a statement, Axel Springer dismissed as "absurd" any suggestion that its publications could be influenced by the interests of its owners.
"Economic interests or those of third parties don't play a role in the coverage by our media," it said.
Davis said she's optimistic about the referendum's chances, "but what really counts now is that everybody goes to the polls."